HOOPS: Clark Loves Hamilton Comparisons

Every now and then when he's working out or playing in a game for Sarasota Booker or for the Florida Rams AAU team, someone will pull Gary Clark aside and tell him that he's the spitting image of Justin Hamilton, a Florida Gator that played his prep basketball at Booker. When he hears the comparisons, Clark just smiles. You can't give him a bigger compliment than that.

(See Gary Clark profile)

While Hamilton was known for his in your face defense and ability to control the floor as a mistake-free point guard with the Gators, he was a high flying scorer up until his senior year at Booker when he went down with the first of two serious knee injuries (second one was his sophomore year at Florida). The knee problems took away the explosiveness but Hamilton remained a fine defender and a solid, fundamentally sound player. Hamilton is long gone from Florida but still playing professionally overseas.

Every now and then, Hamilton returns home to Sarasota. When he hits the gym that he grew up in over at Booker, he usually runs into the gym rat that grew up idolizing him, only the kid isn't so little anymore. Those are very special moments for Gary Clark, who has grown to 6-4 and will follow in Hamilton's footsteps to the University of Florida.

"I grew up watching Justin," said Clark. "I always idolized him and tried to play like him. If you want to compliment me, just say I'm playing my game like Justin. To me, there's nothing nicer you can say about my game."

Because Hamilton became a Gator, Clark became a Gator fan so last summer when Coach Billy Donovan offered him a scholarship, he committed to the University of Florida. He probably feels like committing to the Gators was his lucky charm. After all it set off a marvelous series of events and if you ask Gary Cark right now, he'll probably tell you that it's almost like living in a dream world.

First off, he led Booker to the State 4A basketball championship, averaging 20.9 points along the way. Then a few weeks later, the Gators capped their dream season run to the NCAA Final Four by beating UCLA for the national championship.

Needless to say, the morning after Florida's big win, Clark was all orange and blue at Booker.

"I had on my Gator shirt and I had on my orange and white shorts," he said. "I was all Gator and I was letting everybody know it. I wanted everyone I saw to know I was a Gator that day. I never was more excited and prouder to be a Gator than when they won the championship."

With Florida's NCAA championship, there is a measure of respect for Clark on the AAU circuit where he plays for the Florida Rams. On most weekends, he's in a tournament where Florida Team Nike is also playing and that gives him a chance to hang out with fellow Gator commitment Nick Calathes, who is his best friend. His former AAU teammate from when he played with the Tallahassee Wildcats, Adam Allen of Milton, is also a Gator commitment and there is a real possibility that another of the Wildcats, A.J. Stewart of Arlington Country Day, will be part of this recruiting class.

"I'm really pumped about playing with Nick and Adam," he said. "With Nick, you know if you're open or running the break, he'll get you the ball. You never know where it's coming from but you know if you're open he gets it to you. He may not seem like the most athletic guy out there but I've never seen anyone pass like he can and he's a very creative scorer. He plays a thinking man's game.

"Adam is pure shooter all the way. From the wing it seems like he's almost automatic. All three of us can shoot. If anyone wants to try to zone us, I think they'll find we're pretty deadly from the perimeter."

Clark has the nice outside touch but he's know more as a slasher, someone that will put the ball on the floor, take it to the rack and either score, dish it to an open teammate or get to the foul line. He runs the court very well, finishes nicely on the fast break and he's an outstanding open court defender.

His game is solid, but he's not letting a day go by that he isn't in the gym trying to improve something. He knows he can always get better.

"You can't take anything for granted," he said. "I try to stay humble about the whole situation. I talk to the assistant coaches at Florida on a regular basis and I know what they want me to work on. I'm trying to improve on my ball handling and I want to be better at creating my own shot off the dribble. I do a lot of defensive drills, too. I know that I can be a better defender."

All the hard work now will pay off his senior year in high school and it will prepare him for the next level at Florida. The goal for his senior year is to help Booker repeat as the state champ in Class 4A. The goal for when he arrives at Florida is to be a more complete player.

"I try very hard to learn from my mistakes," he said. "I'm not afraid of hard work. I do want to get better. I want to win another state championship for my school and I want to be ready to play the day I get to Gainesville. I think those are really good goals to have."

He and Calathes talk regularly about Florida. They were so sold on the Gators that they committed last summer and nothing has come close to swaying that decision.

"We talk all the time about just about everything," he said. "We talk about all the things you expect friends to talk about … sports, basketball … girls. We talk a lot about girls a lot, I guess. We talk a lot about the Gators, too. Both of us can't wait to get there. Florida won a national championship this year. We want to make sure it isn't the last one the Gators ever win."

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